Thursday, 23 March 2017

Formula 2017

This Sunday sees the opening race of the 2017 FIA Formula 1 World Championship season. On Monday night, with this in mind, a peculiar thing happened to me: the wife said that she was getting more interested by the F1 races. This is presumably due to her continued hazardously toxic exposure to me, but whatever the reason, she said it and there are no take-backs. As a result, I plan to spend this season trying to indoctrinate her to my own poisonous ends: i.e. watching motor racing all the time.

To this end I thought I should begin with a pre-season primer, a broad sweep looking at the coming Grand Prix year and pointing out some potential areas of interest. Maybe it will work on her. Maybe it won't, but it will work on you. I hope so. Formula 1 motor racing, even when it is at its most soporiphic and tedious (which is anything up to 85% of the time), is GREAT and I love it.

THE FORMULA

Formula 1 is called "Formula" 1 because the cars are designed to a formula: that is, regulations which stipulate everything about the dimensions of the car, the specifications of the tyres it is allowed to run and the size and type of engine. If you didn't know that, I have just BLOWN YOUR MIND.

This year, the Formula has changed. Cars are now wider than they were last year, with bigger tyres which offer more grip and more downforce - 35% more downforce, in some cases - coming from the increased allowances in the size of the aerodynamics. The effect of all this is increased performance, a much needed change since the previous formula, which began in 2014, had seen the drivers forced to drive their cars below their full limitation in order to finish races in the shortest possible time. A 2017-spec Formula 1 car will probably begin the season lapping 4 to 4.5 seconds faster than its 2016 counterpart, with potential increases of up to 5 to 6 seconds per lap by the time the circus reaches Abu Dhabi in November.

The likely result of this: more spectacular cars, more physical and mental challenge for the drivers and more flat-out driving on Sunday afternoons due to more the durable redesigned Pirelli tyres. The racing cars actually being able to race each other on the circuit may prove more difficult to due increases in aerodynamic turbulence and shorter braking distances. However, the passing we do see should be purer - less based on strategic factors - than it has been in recent years.

The rules have also been tweaked. Instead of lengthy safety car periods, red flag stoppages are making a welcome return to Formula 1. Rather than countless neutralised laps behind the pace car, eating away at the total distance, races will now be stopped and the remaining competitors subject to a standing restart on the grid. It should add a little extra spice to proceedings.

Pirelli continue as the sole supplier of Formula 1 rubber. There are five compounds of dry tyre available: Ultrasoft, Supersoft, Soft, Medium and Hard. Three of these compounds will be available at each race, with drivers able to choose their own allocation of each. Drivers need to run at least two different types of tyre in each race, meaning that there will be at least one pit stop each.

Finally, over the winter there was a major change behind the scenes, as Bernie Ecclestone finally relinquished control of the sport he has dominated since the 1970s to the American company Liberty Media. Expect a brief period of harmony followed by inevitable, relentless, politics.

An racing car driver, yesterday


THE COMPETITORS

AMG MERCEDES-BENZ

Mercedes have dominated Formula 1 since the sport switched to 1.6 litre turbocharged hybrid power units for the 2014 season. Of the 59 Grands Prix of the hybrid era so far, Mercedes have won 51. Last season they won a record-breaking 19 races from the 21 events, with Nico Rosberg winning nine to snatch his first World Championship. It was a Herculean effort from Rosberg, who promptly decided that he was spent and retired from Formula 1 in the following week.

Car 44: LEWIS HAMILTON (GB)
Born: 7th January 1985, Stevenage. Age: 32
First GP: Australia 2007
Statistics: 188 races; 53 wins; 61 pole positions; 31 fastest laps; 2247 points. 2008, 2014 and 2015 World Champion.

Car 77: VALTTERI BOTTAS (SF)
Born: 28th August 1989, Nastola. Age: 27
First GP: Australia 2013
Statistics: 77 races; 2 second places; 1 fastest lap; 411 points. Best Championship: 4th (2014).

Hamilton is now driving his fourth season at Mercedes, an association which has brought him 32 Grand Prix wins in 78 starts. If the new car is on the leading pace, Lewis Hamilton is the most likely World Champion of 2017 because he is the most complete driver on the grid. This is the Lewis Hamilton-era of Grand Prix racing, whether people like it or not. Bottas moves across from Williams to replace Rosberg. 2017 will most likely prove to be the Finn's first season in a front-running car and so he has it all yet to prove. I would expect him to win his first race this year, but beating his teammate consistently will almost certainly be beyond his capabilities.

FERRARI

Ferrari have endured a fallow period since the departure of Michael Schumacher at the end of 2006. Their last championship title came in 2007 and, since the hybrid era began in 2014, the sport's most historically successful team have won just three races, all the victories coming in 2015. Pre-season testing suggests that this year's car is much improved, however and Ferrari go into this year's Championship chasing the title.

Car 5: SEBASTIAN VETTEL (D)
Born: 3rd July 1987, Heppenheim. Age: 29
First GP: United States 2007
Statistics: 178 races; 42 wins; 46 pole positions; 28 fastest laps; 2108 points. 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 World Champion.

Car 7: KIMI RAIKKONEN (SF)
Born: 17th October 1979, Espoo. Age: 37
First GP: Australia 2001
Statistics: 252 races; 20 wins; 16 pole positions; 43 fastest laps; 1360 points. 2007 World Champion.

Vettel has won more world titles than any other active Grand Prix driver but the Hamilton domination of the hybrid era has seen rather slim pickings for the German. He failed to win a race in 2016, the second season in the last four where he came up empty handed. However, if the Ferrari is quick enough to get Vettel pole positions in 2017, expect him to win a lot of races: there is no better front-runner in the field and he could easily win a fifth world title this year. Raikkonen, the oldest driver on the grid, hasn't won a race since the Australian GP in 2013 but is one of the most consistent, reliable and canny drivers in Formula 1. Quick enough to beat Vettel over a season? Probably not, but he only just missed out last year.

RED BULL RACING-TAG HEUER

Red Bull consistently produce the most admired chassis in the field but the hybrid era has seen them hamstrung by a weak engine. Don't be fooled by the name: Red Bull are powered by a factory team-specification Renault unit. There are signs that Renault have started to make significant strides towards equalising their performance with the Mercedes and Ferrari powertrains and if they have, a tantalisingly competitive season could be in prospect.

Car 3: DANIEL RICCIARDO (AUS)
Born: 1st July 1989, Perth. Age: 27
First GP: Britain 2011
Statistics: 109 races; 4 wins; 1 pole position; 8 fastest laps; 616 points. Best Championship: 3rd (2014 and 2016)

Car 33: MAX VERSTAPPEN (NL)
Born: 30th September 1997, Hasselt (Belgium). Age: 19.
First GP: Australia 2015
Statistics: 40 races; 1 win; 1 fastest lap; 253 points. Best Championship: 5th (2016).

Red Bull boast what is perhaps the strongest driver line-up in the field. Max Verstappen arrived from the junior Toro Rosso team mid-way through last season and promptly won his first race, the youngest driver ever to win a Grand Prix. His explosive, aggressive talent makes him the hottest prospect in Formula 1. Daniel Ricciardo was the moral victor of last year's Monaco Grand Prix, his brilliant weekend's work spoilt by a tactical mistake by his team in the pits. He is the sport's most bold, daring and exciting racing driver and well capable of putting a Championship tilt together in the right car. The most likely one to wear the "future World Champion" crown? Probably Verstappen, but only on account of his age.

FORCE INDIA-MERCEDES

Force India had their best ever season in F1 last term. Aided by the superiority of their Mercedes engine and their wise decision to live within their financial means by not maintaining their own wind tunnel or building their own gearbox sees them focus their attention on the things that really matter. All of this is moot, of course, since they painted their new car pink and that became the only thing anyone noticed. But make no mistake, Force India are now a team who are capable of winning a race if things go their way.

Car 11: SERGIO PEREZ (MX)
Born: 26th January 1990, Guadalajara. Age: 27
First GP: Australia 2011
Statistics: 114 races; 2 second places; 3 fastest laps; 367 points. Best Championship: 7th (2016)

Car 31: ESTEBAN OCON (F)
Born: 17th September 1996, Evreux. Age: 21
First GP: Belgium 2016
Statistics: 9 races, no points.

Sergio Perez spent 2016 showing distinct signs of a hitherto unseen maturity. Previously, his Grand Prix performances had been lacking in consistency and alarmingly prone to wild and woolly on-track behaviour. Last season, though, he delivered two third place finishes and scored points on 16 occasions from 21 races, including in the last ten consecutive events: Perez looks like a driver coming into his prime. His new teammate, Ocon, spent half of last season racing for Manor but is a protege of Mercedes-Benz. 2017 is his first real chance to show what he can do, but the signs are very promising. His speed is allied to significant consistency: Ocon has so far finished every Grand Prix he has started.

WILLIAMS-MERCEDES

Williams are marking their 40th year as a Formula 1 constructor in 2017. They are the sport's third most successful team and the one that most neutrals root for. Their association with Mercedes-Benz has seen them pull themselves out of the doldrums to a certain degree, although last season was a little more disappointing than the two that had gone before it. Williams last won a race in 2012 and, like Force India, they will need things to go their way for that to change this year.

Car 18: LANCE STROLL (CDN)
Born: 29th October 1998, Montreal. Age: 18
New to Formula 1 this season

Car 19: FELIPE MASSA (BR)
Born: 25th April 1983, Sao Paulo. Age: 33
First GP: Australia 2002
Statistics: 250 races; 11 wins; 16 pole positions; 15 fastest laps; 1124 points. Best Championship: 2nd (2008)

Williams' driver line-up is perhaps the weakest on the grid, on paper at least. Lance Stroll, the son of a Canadian billionaire, is the field's only rookie at the start of 2017. He dominated last season's European Formula 3 championship, but there remain big question marks regarding his age, his experience, his consistency, his racecraft and his fitness for driving this new generation of more aggressive cars. Time will tell. His teammate is Felipe Massa, who was World Champion for 30 seconds in 2008 but hasn't won a race since he fractured his skull in a freak accident at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix. Massa's time as a top line Grand Prix driver is past, a fact of which he is sufficiently aware to have retired at the end of last season. However, Williams' main sponsor, Martini, contractually oblige the team to have one driver who is over 25 years of age (for the purposes of advertising hooch) and Massa found himself unretired again. He's a good driver, who at one point looked as though he was coming to be great, but Massa's likely benefit to Williams this season is his experience.

McLAREN-HONDA

McLaren are now presided over by American advertising guru Zac Brown, long-time president Ron Dennis - the divisive and controversial figure who had made McLaren into the second-most successful team in F1 history - having been acrimoniously deposed last year. They have also returned to running orange cars, a welcome return for the team's traditional colour after years in silver and grey. However, that is pretty much the only piece of positive news coming out of Woking, because the car is a shambles. This will be their third year with Honda engines and both companies are openly dreaming of divorce, following a disastrous pre-season where McLaren didn't manage to run a car for more than eleven consecutive laps because of reliability issues. Will Honda get there? All recent signs suggest that they probably won't. A desperate season looks to be in prospect for McLaren unless these problems can be resolved and they may even be trying to avoid the ignimony of finishing last.

Car 2: STOFFEL VANDOORNE (B)
Born: 26th March 1992, Kortrijk. Age: 24
Only GP: Bahrain 2016
Statistics: 1 race; 1 10th place; 1 point. Best Championship: 18th (2016)

Car 14: FERNANDO ALONSO (E)
Born: 29th July 1981, Oviedo. Age: 35
First GP: Australia 2001
Statistics: 273 races; 32 wins; 22 pole positions; 22 fastest laps; 1832 points. 2005 and 2006 World Champion.

One area where McLaren don't need to worry is in their driving strength. Fernando Alonso is one of the greatest Formula 1 drivers in the history of the sport but his luck (and judgement) are famously atrocious. Since his back-to-back titles with Renault and his fractious season as Lewis Hamilton's teammate in 2007, Alonso has managed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time with alarming consistency. He is not as adept at the politics of the sport as he perhaps thinks he is, which is a terrible pity because as a driver he is probably Hamilton's nearest rival. Since the retirement of Jenson Button, Alonso is the sport's most experienced active driver and he is starting to look royally fed up with McLaren and Honda's inability to give him what he wants, a third world title. His new teammate is the Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne. Vandoorne is highly rated thanks to a stellar and highly decorated career in the lower formulae, but more impressive yet was his drive in Bahrain last season, where sitting in for an injured Alonso he delivered a points finish in his debut Grand Prix. Paddock whispers are that Vandoorne is a potential future World Champion. But probably not in this car.

TORO ROSSO-RENAULT

Toro Rosso are Red Bull's junior team, operated out of Italy by what used to be the Minardi team. This will be their eleventh year in the sport and they have already brought through drivers like Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen. They have firmly established themselves as midfield runners now and are usually a good bet for picking up a lot of small points during the year. Whether or not they boast the resources or ambition to push on to challenge for podiums is open to question: often they start the season well then slide backwards as their better-funded opposition catch up. This year's neat car is also, finally, painted sufficiently differently to the Red Bull that colourblind people will be able to spot it at a glance.

Car 26: DANIIL KVYAT (RU)
Born: 26th April 1994, Ufa. Age: 22
First GP: Australia 2014
Statistics: 57 races; 1 second place; 1 fastest lap; 128 points. Best Championship: 7th (2015).

Car 55: CARLOS SAINZ JR (E)
Born: 1st September 1994, Madrid. Age: 22
First GP: Australia 2015
Statistics: 40 races; 3 sixth places; 64 points. Best Championship: 12th (2016)

Toro Rosso's brief is to provide a home for young drivers in the Red Bull program, with a view to establishing them in Formula 1. As such, it is a peculiarly brutal place, where young talents are cast aside with alarming regularity. Daniil Kvyat can count himself fairly lucky, then, to still have a seat: he was promoted to a Red Bull seat for 2015 but lost it to Max Verstappen early in 2016 after a series of high-profile accidents with Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari. It's sometimes not easy to remember that Kvyat is not yet 23 years of age, because he is fighting for his Formula 1 life. His teammate, similiarly, has a lot to prove. This will be Carlos Sainz Jr's (he is the son of the two-time World Rally Champion, Carlos Sainz) third season at Toro Rosso and that usually means: reckoning. Sainz has shown himself to be a thoroughly reliable pair of hands but there are questions about his ultimate speed. A Red Bull drive may await him if he can prove himself, though.

HAAS-FERRARI

Haas are now in their second season. They are the sport's only American team, although it is hard to guess that from the outside. Indeed, much of their powertrain is built by Ferrari and their chassis is built by Italian racing car manufacturer Dallara, so there's a peculiarly European feel. This is a pity, as Formula 1 could do with some of that Stateside glitz, glamour and showmanship. They had a decent first year, scoring a remarkable 5th place at their debut race, but after that their development curve flattened out and they were comfortably overtaken by their rivals. Second seasons are notoriously difficult for new Formula 1 teams, so we will wait and see. Testing was not particularly promising, with the car suffering from brake problems that its lead driver considered to be insurmountable until Haas finds a new supplier.

Car 8: ROMAIN GROSJEAN (F)
Born: 17th April 1986, Geneva (Switzerland). Age: 30
First GP: Europe 2009
Statistics: 103 races; 2 second places; 1 fastest lap; 316 points. Best Championship: 7th (2013)

Car 20: KEVIN MAGNUSSEN (DK)
Born: 5th October 1992, Roskilde. Age: 24
First GP: Australia 2014
Statistics: 40 races; 1 second place; 62 points. Best Championship: 11th (2014)

Haas has two pilots whose "highly-rated young driver" mantle is starting to go curly and crisp at the edges. Grosjean was fast and wild in his early years in the sport but he has matured into a fine, if not necessarily ultimately competitive, Grand Prix racing driver. Whatever the Haas car is capable of, Grosjean will deliver. Kevin Magnussen's Formula 1 career so far has been a stop-start affair: he finished 2nd in his first ever race in a McLaren that spent the remainder of the season getting slower by the race. He found refuge at Renault last year, but the car wasn't competitive enough to showcase what he can do. What can he do? We don't really know yet. Magnussen is the son of former Grand Prix driver Jan Magnussen and is one of three drivers in the field who can make a similar boast, alongside Max Verstappen (Jos) and Jolyon Palmer (Jonathan).

RENAULT

Renault's love affair with Formula 1 blows hot and cold, but when they are determined to stick around they usually win things. Last season saw fresh investment and impetus being given to the current project and the team are starting to grow again. Renault are operated by an outfit at Enstone, Oxfordshire who originally competed as Toleman and then as Benetton before Renault bought them in 2001. In their various guises, they have won three constructors and four drivers world titles. Renault seem to be on an upward trajectory again, which will be a blessed relief after a difficult 2016 which saw the team finish in the points just twice.

Car 27: NICO HULKENBERG (D)
Born: 19th August 1987, Emmerich. Age: 29
First GP: Bahrain 2010
Statistics: 115 races; 3 fourth places; 1 pole position; 2 fastest laps; 362 points. Best Championship: 9th (2014 and 2016)

Car 30: JOLYON PALMER (GB)
Born: 20th January 1991, Horsham. Age: 26
First GP: Australia 2016
Statistics: 20 races; 1 tenth place; 1 point. Best Championship: 18th (2016)

Nico Hulkenberg joins Renault this year from Force India, the first time that Hulkenberg will drive for a team with full factory support. Hulkenberg is an enormously well-respected driver who has been continually passed over by bigger teams because of concerns over his height and weight. There are few drivers in the field who are quite so reliable, however, and if Renault can give him a good car he will give the team good results. Maybe even his first ever Formula 1 podium: Hulkenberg is just 14 races shy of holding the unwanted record for the longest Formula 1 career without one. His teammate, Jolyon Palmer, was retained by Renault for a second season despite a difficult first year. This may be a smart piece of business by the team, as Palmer has consistently proved that he gets better with time. A better car this year could offer us an insight into what his potential might be.

SAUBER-FERRARI

Sauber have been in Grand Prix racing for 24 years now and are yet to shake off the suspicion that they are making up the numbers. Normally, such suggestions are greeted by an impressive season of point scoring, but Sauber now look as though they might now be in terminal decline. A 9th place at last season's chaotic Brazilian Grand Prix was their only return in a harrowing 2016 season, where they were often the slowest car in the field. However, their facilities at Hinwil, Switzerland are some of the finest in the world and last year saw fresh investment in the team, who have built a neat-looking car for 2017. Beating McLaren is not an unreasonable target, although Renault and Toro Rosso will probably prove too far ahead.

Car 9: MARCUS ERICSSON (S)
Born: 2nd September 1990, Kumla. Age: 26
First GP: Australia 2014
Statistics: 56 races; 1 eighth place; 9 points. Best Championship: 18th (2015)

Car 94: PASCAL WEHRLEIN (D)
Born: 18th October 1994, Sigmaringen. Age: 22
First GP: Australia 2016
Statistics: 21 races; 1 tenth place; 1 point. Best Championship: 18th (2016)

Pascal Wehrlein is a Mercedes-Benz development driver who was impressive in an uncompetive Manor last season. His age and lack of experience cost him, however, as Bottas got the nod ahead of him when the seat at the works team became available. He was also publically sore about Force India choosing his teammate Esteban Ocon as their second driver instead of him. Still, Sauber represent a step up for Wehrlein, who needs to discover that the only way to really make your mark in Formula 1 is by delivering results and lap times. He certainly seems to have the ability to do so. His teammate, Marcus Ericsson, really IS making up the numbers. He has much to prove and, I fear, lacks the talent to do it.

THE RULES

Grand Prix meetings are three day affairs: on Friday (or Thursday, in Monaco) there are two 90-minute free practice sessions. On Saturday morning there is an additional 90 minute free practice, before an hour-long qualifying session at lunchtime. The cars are then put away and cannot be worked on by the teams until the race on Sunday afternoon. Each driver is allocated 13 sets of dry weather tyres and 4 sets of wet weather tyres for the race meeting, no more and no less, so teams have to limit their running to ensure they have enough serviceable rubber to be competitive on Sunday.

QUALIFICATION

On Saturday afternoon, there is a one hour long session to decide the order of the grid for Sunday's race. Within the the first 18 minutes - called Q1 - all twenty cars must set a time, after which the drivers who have set the five slowest lap times will be eliminated and will line up in 16th-20th positions on Sunday. After a short break, the remaining fifteen cars must set a time during the 15-minute Q2, where the 11th-15th placed starters will be decided. The fastest 10 cars then compete in the 12-minute Q3, after which the driver who has posted the fastest time celebrates wildly because they will start the race from pole position.

Drivers who make it to the Q3 top ten shootout receive an additional set of tyres that they can use for that session only. However, there is a trade-off: those drivers must start the race on the set of tyres they used to set their fastest time in Q2. The drivers who qualify in 11th-20th positions may choose which set of tyres they start the race on. The only alteration to this is if a wet race is declared, when all drivers must change to either intermediate or full wet treaded tyres.

Any driver whose fastest time is 7% slower than the pole position time is deemed to be too slow and does not qualify for the race. However, this very infrequently happens and when it does, there are usually extenuating circumstances and the affected car will be allowed to start.

RACE DAY

Each Grand Prix race takes place over a distance of 200 miles (300 km) or two hours, depending on which occurs first (usually the former). Drivers who finish in the top 10 are awarded points and the driver with the most points at the end of the season is the World Champion. The points are awarded as follows:

Winner: 25 points; 2nd place: 18; 3rd: 15; 4th: 12; 5th: 10; 6th: 8; 7th: 6; 8th: 4; 9th: 2; 10th: 1.

The only changes to this come if the race is stopped before 75% of the distance is completed and cannot be restarted. In this scenario, half-points are awarded: 12.5 for the winner, 9 for second, 7.5 for third, and so on. Drivers must also complete at least 90% of the race winner's distance to be eligible to score points.

FLAGS

You will see flags and lights displayed all over the place during the time that the cars are on the circuit. The meanings of the flags are as follows:

Green: Nothing to see here, get on with racing.

Yellow: Caution - reduce your speed. (Waved yellows mean dramatically reduce your speed, double waved yellows mean be prepared to stop).

Yellow and red striped: Slippery surface ahead.

Blue: There is a faster car behind you. In a race, you must get out of its way within three marshalling posts or else you will receive a time penalty for blocking.

Red: The race has been stopped, return slowly to the pit area.

White and black chequer: The race is over. Well done, you finished.

Black and white diagonal: A warning for unsportsmanlike behaviour.

Black and orange: Your car is in a dangerous condition, return to the pits to have it fixed.

Black: You have been disqualified, return to the pits and stop.

There will be times during the races that the safety car will be called out to neutralise the race: cars line up behind it until the problem has been solved. There are also Virtual Safety Car periods, where drivers must drive at a pre-prescribed pace until the problem has been solved, but do not have to line up and circulate behind a pace car on the circuit. For 2017, laps behind the safety car will not count towards the full distance and races will be restarted from a standstill on the starting grid. This is all very complex and boring on paper but makes more sense when you see it taking place.

THE CALENDAR

There are twenty races in 2017, down from 21 in 2016 after the loss of the German GP.

26th March: Australian GP (Albert Park, Melbourne)
9th April: Chinese GP (Shanghai International Circuit)
16th April: Bahrain GP (Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir)
30th April: Russian GP (Sochi Autodrom)
14th May: Spanish GP (Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona)
28th May: Monaco GP (Monte Carlo)
11th June: Canadian GP (Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Montreal)
25th June: European GP (Baku City Circuit, Azerbaijan)
9th July: Austrian GP (Red Bull Ring, Spielberg)
16th July: British GP (Silverstone, Northants)
30th July: Hungarian GP (Hungaroring, Budapest)
27th August: Belgian GP (Spa-Francorchamps)
3rd September: Italian GP (Monza)
17th September: Singapore GP (Marina Bay Street Circuit)
1st October: Malaysian GP (Sepang Circuit, Kuala Lumpur)
8th October: Japanese GP (Suzuka)
22nd October: United States GP (Circuit of the Americas, Austin, TX)
29th October: Mexican GP (Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, Mexico City)
12th November: Brazilian GP (Interlagos, Sao Paulo)
26th November: Abu Dhabi GP (Yas Marina)

I hope you enjoy it.

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